The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The greatest chef in the world turns cooking into an art
Can a chef ever be an artist? I know many chefs who are certain they are artists. And I know others who believe that their highly decorative plating and presentation are artistic endeavours.
Speaking for myself though, I have always thought of cooking as a craft and of chefs as craftsmen. Great chefs are master craftsmen. And the best ones are bright and cerebral. Their food emerges out of a philosophy and their approach to cooking is guided by that philosophy.
But now, after chatting to Daniel Humm, I am starting to rethink my position. Humm is on record as saying that chefs are craftsmen. But if you listen to him talk then there is no doubt that his food and his approach to cuisine are closer to art than they are to craft or philosophy.
You may not know much about Humm. He likes it that way. He is currently the highest rated chef in the world. His New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park is number one on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. It has held three Michelin stars for seven years. The New York Times gave it four stars, its highest rating, in 2009 and when it was re-reviewed in 2015, a new Times critic wrote “Eleven Madison Park’s true theme will stay the same: convincing you that you have been lifted to some better world” before re-confirming the four star rating.
Despite all this, Humm has tried hard not to become a celebrity chef. There is no Chef’s Table episode about him. You won’t see him on TV. He doesn’t endorse products. Nor does he offer a dial-a-quote service to food writers as many other chefs do. Eleven Madison Park is now one of the world’s most famous restaurants, the pride of New York City but I doubt if most New Yorkers would recognise Humm if they bumped into him on the subway.
Many chefs are in love with the idea of being rock stars. Others are moguls and empire-builders: Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Jean-George, Alain Ducasse, Nobu etc. Some believe they have changed the way food is cooked --- and sometimes, they are right: Michel Guerard, Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi etc.
But Humm is none of these people. He wants none of those things. I’d eaten his food in New York and loved it (“astonishing imagination and finesse...New York’s finest”, I wrote here in February 2012) and I ate it again when he brought over a dozen members of his team to cook at Delhi’s Leela Palace this April at a dinner organised by Manmohan and Sapna Vats.
But it wasn’t till we sat down to chat the day after the Delhi dinner that I began to understand what it is that makes Humm (and his food and Eleven Madison Park) so special.
Interview most chefs and they will tell you about a meal they ate in their childhoods that changed their lives. Or they will talk about the seminal influences of their mother’s cooking.
Humm doesn’t talk like that. He has had his Eureka-moments, he says. But nearly all of them have to do with art and not with food.
At the age of nine, he went to the L’Orangerie museum in Paris and saw Water Lillies, part of a famous series of Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet. He remembers being transfixed by the paintings and their beauty. Something inside him changed, probably forever.
Much later, as a young chef, he saw Bull, a series of 11 lithographs by Picasso. The point of the Bull series is that while Picasso started out drawing a whole bull, by the end he had stripped off most of the elements to keep just a symbolic, but entirely recognisable, representation of the animal.
The idea of stripping away everything to get to the essence appealed to Humm. It was something that would become part of his philosophy.
A third formative experience came in 2005 when he went to New York’s Guggenheim Museum to see a retrospective of work by Lucio Fontana, the Argentine-Italian artist. He was particularly struck by one work, a plain canvas with no paint on it, just a single, perfect knife-stroke.
Humm had seen Fontana’s other work so he knew of the artist’s skill and talent. And yet, Fontana had chosen not to paint anything but to make the canvas itself the work. By making a perfect slash, Fontana made the painting three dimensional and went beyond the normal rules of spatiality that governed painting.
Humm says he went home and thought about that painting a lot, read up about Fontana’s work and began to consider how those principles could be applied to his own work.
All those experiences are interesting because they relate to different aspects of art. Monet’s paintings are beautiful. Picasso’s Bull series is about reducing the animal’s form to its essence. And Fontana’s work is about breaking spatial boundaries.
In one sense, they don’t have that much in common. But in Humm’s mind, the works showed him a different way of doing things, one that would shape his cooking.
The problem, of course, is that the Bull and Fontana experiences came relatively late in his life. By the time he saw Fontana’s work, Humm was already a Michelin-starred chef. And with each passing year, he grew more and more successful as the stars and the rave reviews kept rolling in.
But, says Humm now, despite the success and the acclaim, he always felt that he had no overarching style that characterised his work. It was four years after he received his third Michelin star, that he created the dish that he believed showed him the way forward.
He took a celery root and using a classic French technique, poached it in a pig’s bladder. The final dish, served with black truffle was complex and yet clear, presented without any artifice so that the flavours of its major constituents spoke for themselves on a plate that had a stark, simple beauty.
Humm believes that this dish symbolised what he was trying to do: cook food without unnecessary frippery, without loading the plate with unnecessary ingredients and without falling prey to all the old orthodoxies: ‘it needs a little starch, something crisp, a little colour’ etc.
Now, Humm’s food, like Picasso’s Bull, is about reduction, about making the tastes cleaner and yet, more intense. It is a style that more and more chefs are adopting and which will, I think, be the defining food trend of the next few years.
I asked Humm if any kitchen principles flowed from this philosophy. It turned out they did. There were four guiding principles for his food, he said.
The first is taste. The food has to taste delicious. Too much high-end food these days is about the story, about the purity of the ingredients, the novelty of the technique, and so on. But those are not the most important things, Humm says; they hardly matter if the food is not tasty.
The second is context. Dishes should not jump out of nowhere. They have to be rooted in something: in the chef’s memory, in new riffs on classic dishes, in ingredients whose mysteries have still to be unlocked, etc.
The third is progress. Every dish has to justify its existence by representing a movement forward. There has to be something about it that is new or different, something that the chef has not done before.
And the fourth is the presentation. Plates should never be dressed up merely to look pretty. The food should look like it belongs (almost organically) on that plate. In art terms, think of Lucio Fontana and the canvas that become part of the work and of that single knife slash. You can’t do that with food. But you can learn from the principles that underpinned Fontana’s work.
These are sound and profound guidelines and Humm spends nearly half his time, these days, working with what he calls his research and development team to try and create new dishes around these principles. So far, it has gone well. They have created over a hundred new dishes that Humm is pleased with and these will lay the foundations for his future work. (He is still only 40 – he got his three stars when he was 33!)
I found Humm’s philosophy fascinating because Eleven Madison Park’s reputation is for being the happiest great restaurant in the world. The New York Times critic described its guests as being “almost goofy with happiness”.
Do diners realise how much thought goes into each dish?
My guess is that they don’t. And it doesn’t matter. A restaurant is in the business of serving delicious food to make people happy. Eleven Madison Park always manages that.
And it is a tribute to Humm’s humility (and confidence, I guess) that despite being the most cerebral and artistically-influenced chef I have ever met, his focus is on making the guest happy, not on advertising his own genius. (And I use that word advisedly).
We saw some measure of Humm’s special mixture of humility and confidence in the two weeks he spent in India: in Bombay, Delhi, Jaipur and Chandigarh (not for the food but the architecture). It was his first visit here and he only ate Indian food. As a chef, he can usually deconstruct what he is eating. But Indian food was so outside his experience that he was mystified by the flavours and the techniques.
From that mystification came a sincere admiration. While great chefs from his background often experiment with unfamiliar flavours, their techniques remain solidly French. Humm says that he is going to change that. The more he travels, the more he is fascinated by techniques outside the French tradition.
In India, for instance, he was amazed by the flavours that the tandoor could produce. He is seriously considering getting a tandoor for his New York restaurant.
So is he an artist or a craftsman? A philosopher or a master of technique?
I am guessing he is all of those things. But if I had to pick one word to describe him, I know what it would be.